On Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Kenyen Brown presented the Dauphin Island Sea Lab Foundation a $500,000 check from the Department of Justice that resulted from criminal fines assessed to a Norwegian shipping company for knowingly dumping oil and trash into the Gulf of Mexico for years.
In April, DSD Shipping and a handful of its employees were convicted of obstructing justice, violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, tampering with witnesses and conspiracy charges.Testimony revealed the company knowingly violated domestic and international maritime laws by discharging an estimated 440,000 gallons of sludge and wastewater in the Gulf between 2010 and 2014 from a single ship, the M/T Stavanger Blossom.
“By some measures, this is the worst oil contamination in the United States since the BP oil spill in 2010 in terms of the particulate oil matter and the number of gallons of water affected,” Brown said.
The contribution to the $500,000 DISL Foundation is for “community restitution,” but is also part of the $2.5 million fine DSD agreed to in a settlement with the Department of Justice earlier this year. Brown said the hefty fines should send a message that his office and U.S. Coast Guard will continue to search out and prosecute persons or companies that would harm the environment.
“For those ships operating in the Gulf of Mexico, intentional oil discharges not only hurt the environment but hurt the thousands of men and women who rely upon sea culture for their livelihood,” Brown said. “We need our Gulf open for recreation and for those industries that depend on it, and we need all corporate entities and persons to be mindful and active in protecting our environment.”
On June 29, DISL Director Dr. John Valentine echoed Brown’s comments, saying that the environment of the Gulf coast is vital not only to the ecosystem but to the economy as well — something he said was “driven home in 2010 during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”
“Sales went down, tourists quit coming and the economy of the state of Alabama was badly hurt by that,” Valentine said. “It’s important now, I think, to acknowledge that you cannot have a good, healthy economy without a good, clean Gulf of Mexico.”Though the Sea Lab and the DISL Foundation are separate entities, the foundation — created in 2004 — works to support the DISL’s mission “to provide wise stewardship of the marine environment through education and research.”
Executive Director Helene Hassell said the $500,000 would help the DISL Foundation meet a $1 million mark to set up an endowment to help fund future projects and research at the Sea Lab.
According to Brown, the DISL Foundation was one of several local entities his office suggested to the DOJ’s environmental crimes division in Washington, however, he said the DISL Foundation was their “number one recommendation” because of the restoration and education work they foster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Though Hassell didn’t identify any specific projects the money would go to, she said educators and specialists with DISL were working through “a laundry list” of possible programs that could help reverse some of the damage done by DSD’s criminal activity in the Gulf.
“I took this job in 2010 right after the BP Oil spill, but had served on the board before,” Hassell said. “So, I’ve always been very interested in marine science, but it was interesting to me that this case had not really been followed because it was such an egregious criminal act.”
As Lagniappe has previously reported, court records showed that the top levels of DSD’s corporate staff were made aware of non-functioning environmental protection equipment aboard the M/T Stavanger Blossom as early as 2010.
Despite that, the company continued to operate the ship throughout the Gulf until discrepancies in its oil and trash record books were was discovered by Coast Guard inspectors in 2014 during a stop in the Port of Mobile.
Brown said evidence showed the ship had made illegal dumps near the coast of Lousiana in its final two months of operation but said the company is believed to have made similar dumps in locations throughout the Gulf.
According to Brown, the case was prosecuted in Mobile because the infraction was discovered in Mobile — something he attributed to whistleblowers within DSD that alerted local members of the Coast Guard to improper activities on the ship.